Sunday, February 17, 2008


After more than a month of talking about it, I have finally fully transcribed and edited Brooklyn Original’s interview with Anthony LaSala and Seth Kushner, the authors of The Brooklynites. I want to thank the guys for giving us a fantastically in depth interview, and more importantly their patience while I got this together. I’d also like to thank Anthony Patrizio for his recording of the interview.

For those that don’t know by now, The Brooklynites is a gorgeous photo essay book wonderfully written by Anthony LaSala, writer and Senior Editor for Photo District News, and photographed by acclaimed freelance photographer and self professed pop culture addict, Seth Kushner, about the various people of Brooklyn, more specifically the true Brooklynites. In this interview, Seth and Anthony talk about their experiences working on the project, their favorite moments, and try to get to the bottom of what it truly is to be a Brooklynite.

So let’s get to it, from Bay Ridge’s Café Café…

Brooklyn Original proudly presents The Brooklynites!

Let’s start at the beginning, guys, how did you two get together on this project?

Anthony- I’ve known Seth since high school, that’s about 12-13 years or so now. We both went to Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Pkwy. There was an amazing photography program there, probably the best in the country as far as high school goes, maybe even college. We met there and stayed friends through the years. We always talked about doing a project together, with myself doing the writing and Seth doing the photography, but we could never settle on a subject. Finally one day I approached Seth and said "Why don’t we try and do something on Brooklyn, we grew up here, we’re both from here, we still live here, and it holds a special place in our hearts." So we decided to run with that. We first thought we’d just focus on neighborhoods we grew up in, with some of the local characters that we always wanted to talk to, but never had a reason to. We started with that, and then people started to introduce us to other folks, and we started going to different neighborhoods. The first shoot was the 18th Ave feast; you want to talk about that?

Seth- Yeah. We had this notion we’d go to this feast that we had been going to as kids separately, and it’s a very visual thing. The streets are lined with lights and decorations, there are booths, and trucks, and zeppoles, and scantily clad girls, and big muscle guys who are looking at the scantily clad girls, and guys with their noses pushed to one side. It’s a visual feast really. So we thought we’d just go take some pictures, and talk to some people. We didn’t think it would be hard. We thought it would be this really easy thing, and it would just come natural, but I think talking to strangers isn’t something that comes natural to either one of us. That first night out we had a lot of problems. No one trusted us. I think the older people thought we were two young idiots causing trouble who didn’t know what we were doing, and the young people thought we were two old pervs who were taking pictures of them to talk to them. We got a few pictures of the night, but mostly it was definitely an overwhelming failure. We left dejected. The analogy I keep making was we were at the school dance, and no girls would dance with us; we just stood up against the walls with our hands in our pockets all night. We did try though, but we didn’t have the formula down. We realized we had to get this recipe down on how to approach people. We realized later how to do that. Part of it is you have to be completely sincere. For people have to trust you, you have to be that. And part of it is having pictures to show people, having an example of what we’re talking about. People have trouble previsualizng the concept, so we needed to have some examples. So after doing some shoots, we put together a little scrap book. So we’d go out, and have this little book, and say “Hey, we’re doing this thing, here’s what it looks like, we’re going to publish it, can you be in it?” That really made all the difference. We went back to the feast the following year and did a lot better. A lot of the pictures are in the book actually.

A- We also decided about ten shoots in, or so, that we were going to start setting up shoots. Calling people before hand instead of randomly roaming the streets of Brooklyn looking for people to photograph and interview, and that made a big difference as well.

A big drawing point to the book for me is that you're both from Brooklyn. Did being from Brooklyn help draw your subjects into the project?

A- Yeah, definitely. I think if were just two guys from Idaho who were taking advantage of Brooklyn being popular, then people would’ve definitely turned us away a lot more. But being from Brooklyn, and knowing the neighborhoods, the stories, and the places helped immensely. We knew so many places we wanted to go and explore. There was so many great places that we grew up going to, like L&B Spumoni Gardens, Totonno’s, and the Brooklyn Museum; places where we wanted to get in there, and meet the people behind them. It really helped knowing these places instead of having to do the research and find out about them.

S- I think also because we’re from here, and lived here our whole lives we have this network of friends and family who are also from here. So we’re really entrenched into everything Brooklyn. Literally there’s this chain of people, it’s all this six degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of deal. So again coming from somewhere else we wouldn’t have had all these connections.

I sometimes feel that I could infinitely explore Brooklyn. What did you find about Brooklyn that you didn’t know?

A- It was endless. There was so many times that Seth and I were driving down a block in the middle of God-knows-where, and we'd say “Have you ever been down?” “No.” “Have you ever even heard of this place?” “No.” It was great. And that happened over and over and over again.

S- Like the Broken Angel building which got some notoriety from the Dave Chappelle film Block Party. We were just going to interview Danny Simmons, the art gallery owner, and walking down his block we could see a few blocks away, over the brownstones, was this bizarre structure peaking out into the sky. You have to sort of be in just the right spot to see it. So we wandered over, and it ended up being this fascinating place. It’s actually gone now; the city took it apart after all these years. Do you know about this?

No, please tell us…

S- There’s this guy, Arthur Woods, who bought this old building about 25 years ago, and he’s kind of this mad inventor type. He once had this dream about what the building should look like. It was going to have all these spires, and a fountain, and a statue of a whale. He spent all these years trying to create the vision he saw in his dream. I don’t even know how to describe it.

A- I always describe as looking like a Tim Burton creation, just diagonal, and crooked, with so many different types of angles to it, towering into the sky. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. That was one of those days that we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was just an incredible experience to be able to talk to him about that.

Speaking of experiences, but getting more personal, how did the collaborative process work between you two?

S- Well, I mean, we did almost everything together. The book is a real 50/50 endeavor. Even if you look at it now it’s really not a photo book. It’s literally half writing, half photos. And the actual process, picking a subject, even that was a discussion… We had a two man committee to see if someone was legitimate, we had to really consider someone a real Brooklynite. There were certain people even if they moved here a year ago there was something about their aesthetic that said to us if they were a Brooklynite or not. Some people didn’t pass the mustard for us; we just thought that it was some guy from Ohio that moved here just because they thought Brooklyn was cool. We didn’t want those people. That was the first part. The actual sessions would start with an interview, which loosened them up for the photo shoot. During the interview I would just listen, occasionally interject, and set up the equipment. During the actual shoot, Anthony, who works at the Photo magazine, and I, would collaborate to conceptualize the shoot. During the shoot he was like my assistant, he would hold the lights, kind of like my Human Sicilian Light Stand, I called him.

Everyone laughs.

S- And then I’d get the film back, and while I was looking through the film, he would transcribe the interview, and we’d go through the pictures together, and decide which ones we wanted use. It was collaborative every step of the way. We worked well together.

What were the expectations for this project?

A- In the beginning, we really didn’t even start out with expectations we just wanted to work on something meaningful to the both of us. As it progressed we sort of assumed it might end up being a book. I work in the photo business, so I’ve seen a lot of photography books, and I felt like we could definitely do something creative and accomplished, and we had never seen anything about the people of Brooklyn. There are plenty of books about the old Brooklyn landscape and the buildings and things like that, but never really about the people of Brooklyn talking about growing up here. I think as it went along we saw it as a book.

S- We did not start ambitiously at all. We didn’t dream big in the beginning. We weren’t going after celebrities. It was just the barber down the street, the hardware guy; it was going to be what the authentic Brooklynite was. It wasn’t till maybe eight or nine months in that we realized that we could get could get some people of note, like authors and actors, and mix them in and not make it about them, but in the grand quilt of Brooklyn they were some of the stitches. And also at first we weren’t going to cover the whole place. It was too tough a road to hoe. It’s oft putting in a way; it’s a big place, but somewhere a long the way we said, “If we’re going to do this right we have to try to cover every neighborhood.” It took us 3 years. We thought it would take us a year. It was long term project, and there is nothing else that I can think of that I could ever work on that could hold my interest like this.

When did Powerhouse Books get involved?

A- They were basically the first publisher we took the project to. Because of where I work I know all of these publishers, and we know that Powerhouse does a lot New York centric publications. We went over there and showed them the project, they immediately loved it, and they said they’d be interested in doing it. We took it to two other places after that to kind of just get a sense of what other offers we would get. We just felt after seeing those other two places that Powerhouse would do the best job of putting it together and promoting it. We were very lucky because so many photographers and writers go around, and it takes years to get interest in a project. They did a great job, we had a good relationship with them, and we’re really happy with the way things turned out.

Did they offer any editorial advice?

S- They were pretty good, they really didn’t interfere much. We went in about a year and a half in, and they said, “We love this, but come back when you’re done.” They didn’t want to tell us when to finish, or when they want to put it out, just come back when we feel we’re done. They never said we want more of this or more of that, more celebrities, they just let us do the project the way we wanted to do, to their credit. They could’ve pushed us in all different directions honestly, but I guess they trusted in our vision.

Did the end result meet what you expected from it?

S- We kept pushing for more pages, so we eventually got more pages than I think they wanted to give us. We worked with over 300 subjects, and about 200 made it into the book. The process of omitting was just painful, because every person we had to pull out we had a good experience with. It was hard to find things to pull. That was the only regret that we didn’t get all 300 in.

A- Other than that we loved it. Yeah. Everything was up to what we expected. It ended up being a beautiful book.

Getting a little general, what was the most fun part of the project?

A- There were so many fun parts of the project. I think it was meeting some of the people that we always wanted to meet. Like, I grew up going to Totonno’s Pizzeria in Coney Island, which was always my favorite place besides L&B’s, and getting to meet the woman that always served me, always made my pizza, who always had a frown on her face, and I was always scared of; actually talking to her about her family, and the whole process of them owning that building since the turn of the century was unbelievable. Going to the Brooklyn Museum on the day it was closed, and them taking us around the entire place through the halls and empty rooms was incredible. Meeting some of the celebrities was thrilling, we can’t lie about that. Meeting Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Spike Lee, and Rosie Perez, and all those people was really, really cool. Getting to sit down and talk to them was fascinating. Meeting some of the authors, for me as a writer, like Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster was wonderful.

S- Don’t forget about the free porterhouse at Peter Luger’s!

A- Yes! And eating all the free food was on top of everything! We always went in thinking that we might get something good out of some of the restaurant shoots, and we were never disappointed.

Did you approach interviewing the celebrities any differently than the average person?

A- I think we approached it in basically the same way. I don’t think we wanted to differentiate between the two, because the average person was just as important if not more important than the celebrities to us in the book. There were a couple of different things, but basically it was the same 10-15 questions because we wanted to get to the heart of what it was to be a Brooklynite. We didn’t want to differentiate or hold people in higher esteem in any way.

S- From my perspective, the celebrities do so many interviews where it’s just promoting their latest films, that I think they were just really happy talking about something that was real. Talking about something about growing in this place, and why it’s special. Even like John Turturro, who seemingly didn’t have a lot of time, spent a lot of time with us talking in his backyard. He seemed to really enjoy talking about his childhood.

What was one of your favorite interviews?

S- Terence Winter was one of the best interviews. He’s one of the producers and writers of The Sopranos. What was fascinating about this guy, and he gave us his whole life story, was that he went from going to Grady Vocational School, where kids go to be a mechanic, to winning multiple Emmys now. The path he took to do that was fascinating. The story is a total Brooklyn story. He’s a real Brooklyn kid who scammed his way into Hollywood. The short version is that he went to Hollywood and acted as his own agent. He’d call the studios on behalf of himself, deliver the scripts as his own messenger, and literally made this thing happen with what I call Brooklyn Chutzpah. Even now that he’s in the upper echelon, he’s still just a Brooklyn guy.

Ok, so the book is all about the Brooklynites and their stories, but what’s your Brooklyn story?

S- I think an interesting thing is that we both ended up with women who are not from here, and we both had to get our significant others to move here from somewhere else. We had to sell this place, and you know what? It really wasn’t that hard. And their both happy Brooklynites now, and they’re both in the book! That’s kind of a cool thing, but it’s not much of a story though, sorry! Part of it is, and it’s not a Brooklyn story really either, is that I’ve sort of become a tour guide. My wife is from Minnesota, and every once in a while a family member comes to visit, and I gotta think of the selling points of this place, so I always buy pizza for whoever’s here. I try to give them a different pizza experience every time, but um, I’m not doing well, I’m spinning my wheels! What do you got?

A- I don’t know, I’m trying to think. I travel a lot, and I love the fact that no matter where I am, I could be in the middle of nowhere, and I know I’m going to run into someone from Brooklyn. I was in St. Thomas about 5 years ago, taking pictures out by myself, basically lost, I didn’t know where I was, somewhere in the middle of the island, it felt like it was a shady area, I was kind of getting a little nervous, and I went into this place to buy film. The guy that owned the place was from Brooklyn, and he immediately knew I was from Brooklyn. I didn’t even say anything! He could smell the Brooklyn on me!

Everyone laughes.

A- Which was great, he was from Bensonhurst, he grew up like 15 blocks away from me. The guy basically opened a film deli in the middle of St. Thomas, and we talked for like an hour about Brooklyn and what was going on there, and how much he missed it. It’s incredible.

S- I think Brooklyn has a lot of small town neighborhoods, so for me growing up here I didn’t really know the world much outside my own area. I lived in Sheepshead Bay, and I knew a few other places. Through my teens years I got to know other parts a little bit, and you sort of realize it’s a bigger place than you think. But now that I’ve seen more of the world it’s gone back to being smaller in a way. I kind of discovered a lot of it with Anthony through the project. It was like sight seeing in a way. It was interesting sociologically. I guess the point is that you grow up in a place you think you know, and then you realize that you don’t, but it’s never too late to get there. Now I feel like I could be a cab driver! It’s like a small town, but there’s always something new to discover.

Being from Brooklyn myself, and meeting as many people from here as I have, I’ve always felt like we’ve shared a common bond other than geography. Do you think there is a universal mind to being from Brooklyn?

S- I think there is, there’s a couple of things. Everyone we talked to, minus maybe one or two, has a love for the place. And the people that were somewhat negative still had a love for it, even their complaints weren’t real. People just want to be cranky. Everyone had this unyielding love and pride to where they’re from. I don’t think you get that everywhere, at least not in the same way. And there’s a certain kind of toughness, it’s like a strength. No one’s wussy here, even the people who are can beat up wussies from other towns!

Everyone laughs.

A- I think everyone that’s from here thinks that they’re one step ahead of anyone else from anywhere else. I think it was the artist, Kenan Juska, that told us in the book how he was going away to California for awhile, and he was really nervous, he was a kid, but his uncle came over and told him, “You have nothing to worry about, you’re from Brooklyn, you’re already three steps ahead of everyone else.” I think that’s the truth. I think everyone from here feels that way. Wherever you go, you feel like you have an edge, like you have an ace up your sleeve when you’re from Brooklyn. From growing up on the streets, and knowing all the people here, you feel like you have somewhat of an advantage and you take it with you wherever you go. I think everyone would agree with that.

S- There’s no other place that has the mystique of Brooklyn. All over the world people know about Brooklyn. Kids in Japan wear Brooklyn T-Shirts. There’s definitely some kind of reason for that. I don’t think we discovered the answer really, other than the fact there’s something going on here that’s just different. If you look at the people of note that come from here, there’s more of them from here than probably anywhere in the world. There’s definitely something going on here, and I think that’s interesting to people all over the world.

What has been the reaction to the book?

S- I think everyone has been really kind. We really haven’t had any negative press. We were really conscious when we were working on and editing the book not to neglect any particular neighborhoods, and to make sure we had a good cross section of people in terms of race, religions, and careers. We felt there was a certain level of snarkiness we had to prepare for among the blogosphere that were going to pick at anything we do, which we got from an article on the Gothamist about a year before the book came out that had talkbacks that had people complaining about which neighborhoods we did and didn’t have. But honestly, aside from that, since the actual book came out it’s been overwhelmingly positive I’m happy to say.

A- And we were mentioned in the NY Times as one of the top NY books to buy for the holidays. We were really pleasantly surprised.

So what is next for you guys?

A- We don’t know yet. Honestly, we’ve been talking about it a lot. We have a few ideas that hopefully we’ll be working on together, and few that we’ll work on separately. There are ideas we got from the book that we might try out. We’re not quite sure yet is basically the short answer. There will be something else though, we really enjoyed working together, and felt like it was a big success. I think we’re going to try it again, and see where it goes from there. Or we may just talk about it for ten years and never do anything.

Then you could do a book based on that!

S- And no one’s gonna care!

Everyone laughs.

Well, thank you, guys! You’ve done Brooklyn proud!

To purchase The Brooklynites go to one of these places: Amazon Barnes and Noble Deep Discount

Photo of Anthony and Seth by Sal Cipriano, all photography thereafter by Seth Kushner from The Brooklynites.



M. Patrizio said...

Great interview! I am happy to see it finally up!

Anonymous said...

Amazingly inspirational. The photographs look so beautiful. I will definitely be buying The Brooklynites.

Anthony said...

Really cool guys and a really great book. They
are both indeed Brooklyn Originals. Go buy the

Nice work, Sal. And thanks again to Seth and
Anthony for sitting down with us.